The town of Hatch, New Mexico may be small – just over 1,600 residents call it home – but come Labor Day weekend, its population temporarily swells to 30,000 people. This is no fluke migration: Hatch is also known as the Chile Capital of the World”¦and for chile-heads, visiting the annual Hatch Chile Festival at the start of September is the ultimate pilgrimage.
Located between Las Cruces and Truth or Consequences in southern New Mexico – a two-and-a-half-hour trip by car from Albuquerque – the Hatch Valley has long been blessed with agricultural bounty. Its proximity to the Rio Grande River means that cotton, onions, lettuce, sweet potatoes, and a number of other crops flourish in its fertile soil. But of all the local crops, chile is the undisputed king: those who know their capsicums revere Hatch Chiles for their piquancy, smokiness, and spice.
Returning for its 44th edition from 5th-6th September this year, the Hatch Chile Festival wasn’t always so well known. The event started in 1971 as a way for local farmers to mark the annual chile harvest, towing along trailers of their freshly picked peppers to sell or roast on-site. Gradually, the bounty began to attract food lovers from around the country, and in 2014 the festival welcomed visitors from nearly all 50 states.
“We grow and distribute the best chile,” said festival organiser Tina Cabrales, when asked about its exponential growth. “It’s so addictive. You talk to people and they all say they can’t wait for the Chile Festival so they can come and get their chile to put in the freezer for the year. You just can’t live without it – you eat it for every meal!”
It’s no exaggeration that the locally grown chile is a completely essential part of New Mexican cuisine. Young chiles are picked when plump and bright green; at this stage they’re fiery and peppery, and can be stuffed and fried (chiles rellenos), made into green chile sauce (which goes on everything from enchiladas to burgers), used in posole and stew or simply roasted and then frozen for use during the rest of the year. Chiles that are left on the plant to mature later turn a deep red; at this stage, they’re hung up in ristras (suspended garlands of the fruits, an iconic image all across New Mexico) and left to dry. But no matter your answer to the classic New Mexican question – “red or green?” – this is the place to get your chile fix.
Every year, the Hatch Chile Festival kicks off with a traditional parade, which wends its way through the small town early on Saturday morning. After the floats, tractors, and marching bands sail by, visitors head to the festival grounds, where the Hatch Chile Queen is crowned and the festival gets into full, spicy swing.
If New Mexico could be captured in a single scent, it would be the unmistakeable aroma of freshly roasting chiles. Across the festival, a number of roasters – large metal contraptions, cranked by hand, that spin the newly harvested green chiles over hot coals or flames until their skins are blackened – are set up, and the heady perfume floats across the fair grounds. You can make like a native New Mexican and pick up a bushel of chiles to have roasted on-site; once prepped, they should be packed in sealed plastic bags and stored away in the freezer. If you aren’t looking to source an annual supply of chiles, though, you can still ask for a taste – most vendors don’t mind sampling their wares.
Beyond the plain chiles, festival vendors serve up all manner of chile-laced New Mexican specialities. Think: tacos, gorditas (stuffed corn cakes), burritos, and classic green chile cheeseburgers. You may even find green chile ice cream while wandering the festival grounds – a simultaneously spicy and cooling confection. This year, Nopalito’s Restaurant – a popular Las Cruces-based eatery since its founding in 1964 – will also host an on-site kitchen serving up favourite local dishes.
But perhaps the most popular festival highlight is the Chile Eating Contest, held on both Saturday and Sunday. Participants need to be 18 years or older to enter, and are required to eat 10 roasted and peeled green chiles, including the seeds and up to the very stem. The first to complete the sweat-inducing challenge is crowned the champion; they’re also rewarded with a large bag of freshly roasted green chiles, though it might be some time before they can enjoy their prize. (For competitive eaters who lack a tolerance for spice, a watermelon-eating contest will also be held.)
Beyond the chile-roasting, cooking, and munching, the Hatch Chile Festival has other draws. Mariachi bands provide live entertainment and an ongoing soundtrack to the tastings, while a horse shoe-tossing contest draws crowds. An accompanying carnival is ideal for younger attendees, and artist booths provide a bit of colour. And for those looking to learn a local skill, demonstrations teach attendees how to craft their very own ristras.
After you’ve made a full survey of the festival, snacking as you go, meander back to town, where more chile farmers, chile-serving restaurants, and chile festivities await. Just remember to do as much sampling as your tongue will tolerate – once you’ve tasted the famous Hatch chiles, you’ll miss them when you go.
Header image: August and September are harvest time for the famous Hatch chiles © theturquoisetable/Flickr
Thanks to our partnership with Delta, it’s easy to book flights to Albuquerque – and to head straight to the Hatch Chile Festival once you arrive.
Have you ever visited the Hatch Chile Festival? What’s your favourite way to enjoy Hatch Chiles? Let us know in the comments below.
Written by Claire Bullen